Manchester City’s early date with last year’s Premier League Champions could help define the season from the early outset. For Manuel Pellegrini, the game may help to define his tenure with the club.
Manchester City certainly dominated many of the headlines in the off-season. Whether you were tracking the ongoing possibility that the club could move on from Pellegrini or you were following the transfer reports, Manchester City were a central talking point for many pundits. Oddly enough, one topic of conversation missing among those talking points was the possibility of City regaining their crown in Pellegrini’s third year, ostensibly because nobody thought Pellegrini would even have a third year. When beIN sport began rerunning their scoop that City had reached an early agreement with Bayern Munich’s Pep Guardiola, the writing really seemed to be on the wall for Pellegrini.
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Instead of sacking Pellegrini, the club surprised a great many by signing him to a one-year extension right before the season started. You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to figure out why this took place; the club didn’t feel like having an air of uncertainty around the manager was the best way to reclaim a title after a down year. These types of situations have a way of derailing promising seasons, and the City hierarchy were taking no chances and leaving no room for excuses. Pellegrini has his stability and several key signings, now the winning must follow.
Straight out of the gate, City were impressive — okay, maybe not so much on defense, but the offense manufactured in the game against West Brom was nothing short of impressive, even if the team wasn’t starting all their thoroughbreds. But West Brom is West Brom and without trying to disrespect the club or their ambitions, Chelsea present a different kind of challenge. They present the kind of challenge that Pellegrini needs to overcome in 2015 or he may never get another shot to overcome them.
As has been mentioned half-a-million times leading into Sunday’s contest, City have a great opportunity to bring themselves five points clear of last year’s title-holders. A five point lead two games into the season isn’t exactly insurmountable, but it’s exactly the type of lead that Chelsea grabbed early in last year’s campaign and never relinquished. Now Pellegrini sits on the precipice of being able to do the exact same thing and he will be expected to do it.
Even though both of last year’s ties ended in 1-1 draws, Chelsea began both games on the front foot. Loïc Rémy and André Schürrle were responsible for the opening goals in each game, Schürrle on the road and Rémy at home. City were fortunate that they were able to find an equaliser in the first contest, with Pablo Zabaleta being sent off with a red card shortly before Chelsea took their lead. Frank Lampard’s 85th minute rescue was the difference between losing two of their last three or getting two points from their last three games against Stoke City, Arsenal, and Chelsea.
Of the teams finishing in the top four in 2014, Pellegrini only managed one win in six contests. While their lone win against top four teams was against rival Manchester United, the Red Devils managed to get the last laugh, drubbing City 4-2 in the return leg. Adding insult to injury, the United defeat came on the heels of losing to Burnley and Crystal Palace in a span of three weeks. Making matters worse, it left City with no other option but to win every, single one of their final remaining games and let the chips fall where they may.
The chips fell in City’s favor, but it did little to provide a sense of accomplishment after a season that could have been. This is, in part, why it is so critical for the Blues to overwhelm Chelsea with intensity from the word go. It’s possible that Pellegrini recognizes the importance of this, as City put on a passing clinic against West Brom. The Blues completed 692 passes, courtesy of Opta Sports, 461 of those passes in the first half. City passed the ball 211 times more than any other team in the Premier League last week. In other words, Pellegrini was looking to absolutely dominate West Brom.
This is the attitude that the Blues need to bring on Sunday. Cliche as it may sound, City need to impose their will on Chelsea. Chelsea have a technically superior back four, but City brought in Sterling for exactly these types of games. Using a combination of passing and countering Chelsea’s counters, City have the ability to keep Jose Mourinho’s men on the back foot in this contest. A lack of Thibaut Courtois in net for Chelsea should also provide an added bonus, not that Asmir Begović is a slouch.
Out-passing Chelsea will not be enough for City, this isn’t really a feat against Mourinho teams. City will need to focus on maintaining purposeful possession, a tenant in the Pellegrini era. That said, the need to start this season on a high note should not come at the expense of intelligent play. Taking a risk or two is fine when you’re an offensive squad, but the back four of City and whomever is tapped as a holding midfielder will need to be alert when City spring forward and leave themselves exposed.
City also need to show more discipline against Chelsea than they did last year. The Blues accumulated six yellows and one red in their two contests with Chelsea. City picked up four yellows and a red in the span of 54 minutes during the first leg, the four yellows came in just 32 short minutes. By comparison, Chelsea only had four yellows and none in the second leg. Pellegrini’s men simply must play with more awareness and discretion, they cannot get caught up in going tit for tat with Chelsea.
City have all of the tools to have a successful 2015 campaign. Regardless of what may happen with future signings, the level of talent already possessed by City would make many club owners salivate. Their consistency over the last five years as a club illustrates that they have the talent to win regularly. It’s up to City to prove to Europe that they are ready to take the next step in their development under Pellegrini.
Beating Chelsea on Sunday will go a long way in proving City are taking those steps under Pellegrini.